Pedestrian deaths in U.S. reach highest level in 40 years


Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have reached their highest level in 40 years. Using funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is spearheading the allocation of $5 billion to state and local governments through a federal grant known as Safe Streets and Roads for All to try and prevent roadway deaths. Buttigieg joined Geoff Bennett to discuss the program.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    We're going to shift our focus now to the rise of roadway deaths, a problem that's worse in the U.S. than in many other developed countries.

    One year ago, Los Angeles resident Angelica Chavarria was walking to church with her husband, Jemmy, and their son, Zion.

  • Angelica Chavarria, Mother:

    And I remember we did everything perfectly. We touched the blinkers for the light.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The family of three waited at a marked crosswalk, guided by a crossing guard. When traffic stopped in both directions, they all started to walk.

  • Angelica Chavarria:

    So, everything was perfectly fine for us to walk. And I remember we had only walked maybe a couple of steps, and when I turned, I just saw this car coming towards us. And the only thing that I said I remember that day, I just said: "Jemmy!" I screamed: "Jemmy."

  • Geoff Bennett:

    The approaching vehicle did not stop. Jemmy reacted quickly, shoving his son to the sidewalk, before pushing Angelica out of harms way. Jemmy was struck and killed. The driver, who never stopped, has yet to be identified.

  • Angelica Chavarria:

    And that for me, it's like, you could have stopped, because my husband wasn't an animal. He wasn't even an animal. You stop and you're like, oh, my gosh, you know? But this person didn't stop. So that, for me, is like — I just pray every day. I'm like, lord…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have reached their highest level in 40 years. For some 25 years, pedestrian fatalities were on a long decline.

    But, in recent years, they're back on the rise. In 2021, there were nearly 7,500 pedestrian deaths, equivalent to roughly 20 deaths each day. It's a major part of a growing problem. Overall, roadway crashes are a leading cause of death in the U.S. And even in the early days of the pandemic, deaths continued to increase.

    In 2020, nearly 39,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes, a 7 percent increase from the year before. By 2021, that number shot up to nearly 43,000, a figure comparable to the number of lives lost to gun violence each year.

    Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation: We need to talk about roadway deaths in America.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Using funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is spearheading the allocation of $5 billion to state and local governments through a federal grant known as Safe Streets and Roads for All to try and prevent roadway deaths.

    A particular focus, bicycle fatalities, which have increased a whopping 44 percent since 2010. This past August, Daniel Langenkamp's wife, Sarah, was hit by a truck driver while riding her bike in Montgomery County, Maryland.

  • Daniel Langenkamp, Husband:

    My wife, Sarah, and I and our boys had recently been evacuated from Ukraine, where we were U.S. diplomats serving to help Ukraine fight Russian aggression, basically.

    And so Sarah had been attending our boys' open house for the beginning of the school year at their school and had been riding her bike back to our apartment in Bethesda. And, as she was riding along, a truck turned right, apparently without seeing her, and struck her and crushed her.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Since then, he's pushed for more bike and pedestrian safety measures at the local and national level. Part of the funding from the Safe Streets and Roads for All grant is going toward improving streets his wife used to ride.

  • Daniel Langenkamp:

    Behind every one of these numbers, the 42,000 or so people that have died this year or last year, there are people like Sarah.And we have to remember that.

    I think we all want a society where those people are safe, where riding a bike is not a life-and-death decision.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    We're going to talk more now about the new federal initiative to improve road safety.

    Joining us now is Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

    Mr. Secretary, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Picking up where Mr. Langenkamp left off, his point that choosing to ride a bike shouldn't be a life-and-death decision, roadway accidents are a leading cause of death in this country, on par with gun violence. Are you surprised that there hasn't been more outrage, greater awareness, a greater willingness to do something about it?

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    I do think that there's a disconnect between the amount of damage, harm and death that's happening on our roadways and the amount of attention that it gets.

    If this were happening in any other mode of transportation, air travel, for example, America would be up in arms. And yet I'm afraid that this country has become used to roadway deaths, whether we're talking about pedestrian, bicycle or vehicle occupants.

    It's happened so much and it's happened to so many people that so many of us know that we act and think sometimes as if it were inevitable, as if we were all living in a country at war for as long as we can remember.

    The truth is, it is preventable. Not only is the amount of death happening on our roadways proportional — in its proportion similar to that of gun violence. It's also disproportionate to what's happening in a lot of other Western countries. And that tells us that, if we make different choices, have different policies,make different kinds of investments, like the ones we're announcing this week, we can make a difference.

    And I think the only tolerable level of roadway death in America is zero. We have to set ourselves on a course toward doing just that.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    This program allots $5 billion to state and local governments over the next five years.

    Why did you decide to have this national strategy aimed at funding local projects? How is this fundamentally different than anything that the Department of Transportation has tried before?

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Well, the basic philosophy here is that the individual projects and designs don't need to come from Washington, but more of the funding should.

    I think back to when I was the mayor of South Bend. And like any mayor, like any community, we had a long list of things we wanted to do that we believed would make our community safer for pedestrians, bicyclists, drivers, passengers, wheelchair users, you name it.

    And, a lot of times, those visions don't get realized because there's not enough funding. So what we're able to do — and this is just one of the many programs in President Biden's bipartisan infrastructure law that we're now putting the work, literally putting out on the street — is that this is allowing us to support those community visions, both with hundreds of communities that are going to get planning grants to help build out their vision and design the improvements that are needed, and then, for dozens of communities, construction grants to do the physical work of making our roads safer.

    Our national strategy calls for five elements that we think are going to make a big difference, safer people, safer vehicles, safer speeds, a better standard of post-crash care, so fewer injuries turn into fatalities, and then safer roads.

    And it's that last piece, the design of the roads themselves, that we know we can make a direct impact on through these funds.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Well, on that point. I mean, there are cities that we can look to for solutions, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, closer to home, Hoboken, New Jersey.

    In doing the research, a city of 60,000 people, they haven't had a single traffic fatality since 2018. How are they able to do that? And are there things that other cities can take away from that?

  • Pete Buttigieg:


    I hosted the mayor of Hoboken and several other cities that have achieved this here at the Department of Transportation recently, because I think these examples are extremely important. When you go and set out a vision like zero traffic deaths, it sounds so remote that some people might view it as pie in the sky.

    So I think it's important to point to specific places like Hoboken, Jersey City; Edina, Minnesota; Evanston, Illinois; that have experienced at least one year and sometimes several years with zero traffic deaths. They're not the biggest cities in America, but they're not the smallest either.

    And our goal is to add every year to the roster of cities that got that done. What we're seeing is a level of intention, mayors ready to use their visibility to call for greater safety culture, road design that encourages vehicles to ride at — and drive at safe speeds, measures that protect pedestrians, whether it's the right kind of lighting signals, crosswalks, medians, the way that the concrete bumps out into the street.

    And it is going to be different from one city to another. But we know that the more communities embrace this as a goal and put serious resources into it, the more lives are going to be saved. That's why we're helping on that resource side and helping fund the planning activities that help get this done.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    In addition to advocating for infrastructure changes to roadways, what about regulating the sizes of trucks and SUVs? Is that something that you would encourage?

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Well, one of the most important functions of our department is to enforce federal motor vehicle safety standards.

    And we're constantly revising and refreshing those standards based on things like the familiar crash test dummy process and other things we can do to assess the safety of any vehicle that goes out on the road.

    What we're seeing right now is that there are a lot of developments and a lot of changes to cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, some of which are potentially very encouraging, like onboard safety technology, but only if used in the right way. And they're relatively new. So we have got to get more data on the effect that they're having.

    Another thing that we're doing is taking a look not just at the traditional measure of the safety of these vehicles for the occupant, but the safety of these vehicles from the perspective of anybody who might come into contact with them at an intersection.

    And I think that's an area that's going to call for continued research and work to make sure that we're really looking at the entire picture of how the design of the vehicle affects the physical safety of everybody implicated inside and out.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks for your time and for your insights. We appreciate it.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Thank you. Good to be with you.

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Pedestrian deaths in U.S. reach highest level in 40 years first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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